Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Novo Scraps Inhaled Insulin

The dismal failure of Pfizer/Nektar’s Exubera loudly called into question whether inhaled mealtime insulin was commercially viable at all.

The answer—surprise, surprise--is that it’s not, at least according to Novo Nordisk. The Danish firm announced last night that it was scrapping its Phase III inhaled insulin program, which uses Aradigm’s AERx liquid aerosol system.

The slight irony here is that the (already painfully delayed) AERx program was killed because it failed to show “sufficient clinical or convenience benefits” over the various insulin analogs already available to patients—including, prominently, those using Novo’s own FlexPen, a discreet and simple-to-use injection device.

Novo’s decision doesn’t mean that other late-stage inhaled insulin wannabes, including Lilly/Alkermes and MannKind will follow suit. But as we argued in this IN VIVO feature, Pfizer’s snafu means the going will be tough. Novo was at best going to be third to market, and the brick-sized device (far larger than Lilly/Alkermes’) had long been recognized as a problem—that’s why Novo had begun a next-generation program in-house. And the product required refrigeration.

So the writing was on the wall. In fact it’s somewhat of a relief that Novo has finally put this long and expensive project to bed, taking a non-recurring cost of about $260 million (DKK 1.3 billion), which will hit 2007 operating profit. Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CSO and EVP of Novo Nordisk had already last year acknowledged that “this is not going to be a huge product.” Now it won’t be one at all.

Not that this spells the end of pulmonary delivery for Novo. The problem with all of the current batch of inhaled insulins, according to Thomsen, is that they’re short-acting, meal-time insulins that must be taken alongside basal insulin—the ones available with tiny, pain-free injection devices. Exubera's failure showed that patients (and payors) understandably, were reluctant to add onto that regime something even more complex. And Pfizer, for reasons we outline here, failed to reverse the treatment sequence by persuading physicians to prescribe insulin earlier on.

So given that meal-time insulin is typically a fifth or sixth step in diabetics’ chain of medication (which progresses from diet-and-exercise, through oral anti-diabetic drugs to GLP-1s and then basal insulin) why did drug companies focus their inhaled efforts on this and not basal insulin? “Becase we had no choice,” says Thomsen, technological limitations meant that prandial insulin was the only one which could be formulated for inhalation.

Those limitations are no longer, he continues. Novo now intends to focus on developing pulmonary forms of basal insulin and GLP-1. We outlined in a feature last summer the importance of glucagon-like-peptide (GLP-1) analogs (and Phase III GLP-1 analog liraglutide in particular) to Novo’s business, so it’s no surprise that GLP-1s feature in the firm’s fresh set of pulmonary delivery plans.

These are a way from the market, however—liraglutide itself can’t be formulated for inhaled delivery because its half-life is too short; nor can Lilly’s first-to-market Byetta. Still, “we’re not starting from scratch, either; we have an inhaled, bioavailable GLP-1 candidate in late-preclinical trials,” asserted Thomsen on a conference call following today’s news.

Novo’s shares were down nearly 4% this morning; chances are Aradigm might have a bad day when the US exchange opens. But Novo’s put on a brave face. “We’re going from being followers in a commercially unattractive area, inhaled meal-time insulin, to leaders in a highly commercially-attractive area—a new generation of inhaled long-acting basal insulins and GLP-1 analogs.”

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